Could sensors be the key to social distancing in the workplace?

As workers prepare for a return to the workplace, companies must ensure that measures are in place to promote social distancing between employees. Social distancing and other behavioural changes as a result of the Coronavirus are likely to have a lasting impact. For this reason it is worth investing in measures that will keep your employees safe now and for the future.

The challenge of social distancing in the workplace

In many industries, practicing social distancing within the workplace can be incredibly difficult especially where colleagues work closely together on production lines or when operating large machinery.

Factories, warehouses and other work environments may have been closed during the pandemic and so implementing these new measures when reopening may feel unfamiliar at first. Added to this unfamiliarity is the fact that many workers may not instinctively know how to practice social distancing in a work environment.

Whilst measures such as signs, physical barriers and floor markings can be effective in promoting social distancing, they are not without their flaws. For instance, workers must actively pay attention to signs encouraging social distancing and whilst a particular sign may suggest that workers stay a specified distance apart, what this distance means in reality may be less clear.

Whilst working this guidance may be forgotten as workers are engrossed in what they are doing or are busy operating dangerous machinery and so may not always be focused on floor markings and signs on walls.

Could sensors offer a superior solution?

To overcome the limitations of signage and floor markings, sensor technology can be used to automatically alert workers when they are too close to one another. This ensures that employees are reminded of social distancing whilst working without having to constantly make active choices. This also reassures workers who may be diligent with social distancing but who could be working with colleagues that are less so.

Another benefit of using sensors for social distancing is that information gathered by these sensors can be tracked and monitored. If a worker then later informs their employer that they have the virus, a report can be run to identify every person who has been in contact with that worker. This measure enables companies to go one step further when protecting their staff for the future.

How can sensors be used to promote social distancing?

Sensors can be used to promote social distancing in two key ways, by;

1. Monitoring workers and their movement

This can be achieved by using sensors within the work environment or on doors to monitor the movement of people around a factory or a warehouse. Sensors can also be worn as wristbands or around the neck to determine a user’s proximity with others in the workspace.2. Monitoring equipment remotely Monitoring equipment remotely reduces the number of people on-site by:

  • enabling operators to obtaining readings remotely
  • helping managers schedule maintenance at more convenient times
  • reducing failures so that fewer maintenance professionals attend the site
  • reducing failures so that workers do not gather if a production line shuts down

Proximity Sensors

Proximity sensors can be worn by workers to identify when two users are in close proximity. ProGlove, a German company, have modified their wearable barcode scanners for proximity sensing in factories and warehouses. The gloves provide sound, flash and vibration alerts when users are near one another.

Figure 1: 1.2M Photoelectric Proximity Sensor from Sick

RFID Sensors

Some companies, such as Tharsus, have used Radio Frequency sensors (RFID) combined with Cloud analytics for their wearable devices called “The Bump.” ( Users are alerted when they are in close proximity to others and the device provides smart reminders for hand sanitisation. In Italy, the Istituo Italiano di Technologia (IIT) have created an iFeel-You smart band using RFID sensors to determine the distance between other users. These bracelets also contain medical temperature sensors to detect variations in body temperature which may help users diagnose this symptom of the Coronavirus.

Optical Sensors

SmartEagle in the Netherlands have used optical sensors to develop a distance sensor capable of measuring how many people are in a room and the distance between these people. When users are too close, an alarm will sound and a notification will be generated on the users’ phone. Using Artificial Intelligence (AI), sensors can differentiate between people and inanimate objects offering a smart solution for social distancing.

Figure 2: 2M Optical Sensor from Pepperl+Fuchs

Motion Sensors

Sensors can also be used to monitor any motion and movement around the workplace as well as on doors. This information can then be used to determine how many people are within a workspace so that when numbers are high, workers can be redirected to alternative locations. By creating a network of door sensors, it will also become easier to ensure that unauthorised visitors do not gain access to the site which could potentially increase the risk of contamination.

Vibration sensors

Sensors that monitor vibration on machinery can be used to track when equipment is operating out of range. This can help managers to plan for maintenance before a fault occurs so that technicians do not need to attend the site unnecessarily.

Figure 3: Vibration and Temperature Sensor from Omron Industrial Automation

Temperature sensors

Temperature sensors are ideal for monitoring equipment remotely as, when machinery overheats beyond a certain parameter, this can be indicative of a machine fault or of potential imminent failures. By tracking this type of data, maintenance professionals will be able to plan scheduled maintenance at a convenient time that will not compromise social distancing guidelines.

Figure 4: 1350 °C Thermocouple from Cynergy3

With advances in sensing technology the opportunity to track workers and alert them when they are failing to practice effective social distancing has never been greater. The use of such technology can be enhanced with the Internet of Things (IoT) and Artificial Intelligence (AI) helping companies to protect their employees effectively in the workplace.

The use of sensors, in addition to other safety measures such as signs, floor markings and physical barriers can help to provide a safe work environment and ensures that social distancing becomes the new normal.

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